Science in a Golden Age

Jim al-Khalili unravels the links between latest scientific developments and the unsung scientific heroes of the past


About Science in a Golden Age

From satellite-enabled GPS, to hi-tech medical procedures – much of today’s modern science has been developed and understood through the work of scientists and thinkers across the ages and from around the world.

While the names of Newton, Galileo and Copernicus are well known, what is less well known is that these men were building on the work of great scientists who came before them.

Between the 9th and 14th centuries, Europe was living in the dark ages, but in the Islamic world there was a progressive scientific revolution taking place, as Arab rulers built illustrious centres of learning, where great scholars pioneered revolutionary new ideas. Men like Ibn Sina, al-Kindi, or al-Razi, whose contributions to science are immense.

Renowned Iraqi-born theoretical physicist and presenter Jim al-Khalili, takes us back on a journey of discovery, unravelling the links between today’s latest scientific developments and the unsung scientific heroes of the past.

This Golden Age of Islamic Science presented ground breaking achievements: it was the era that “mathematised” all the sciences, created chemistry from alchemy and conceived the modern scientific method, amongst so much else.

Al-Khalili travels to Jordan, Turkey and Qatar, introducing us to local scientists, both ancient and modern. He uncovers artefacts and influential Arabic manuscripts and even recreates ingenious experiments from up to 1,000 years ago, which are still relevant to modern-day science.


Science in a Golden Age

Jim al-Khalili unravels the links between latest scientific developments and the unsung scientific heroes of the past.




Optics: The True Nature of Light

Physicist Jim al-Khalili reveals how Islamic thinkers played a crucial role in explaining light and optics.

Playing a vital role in our everyday lives, technologies based on light are in use all around us. From art and science to modern technology, the study of light – and how it behaves and interacts with matter has intrigued scientists for over a century.

This year, 2015, marks the 1,000th anniversary of the Kitab al-Manazir (The Book of Optics), a seven-volume treatise written by the Iraqi scientist Ibn al-Haytham – a pioneering thinker whose views have been crucial to our understanding of how the universe came into existence.

Shaping our understanding of vision, optics and light, Ibn al-Haytham interrogated theories of light put forward by the Greeks – men like Plato and Euclid who argued that the way we see objects is by shining light out of our eyes onto them. Ibn al-Haytham argued instead, and correctly, that the way we see is by light entering our eyes from outside either reflecting off objects or directly from luminous bodies like candles or the sun.

His methodology of investigation, in which he combined theory and experiments, were also remarkable for their emphasis on proof and evidence.

In the first episode of Science in the Golden Age, theoretical physicist, Jim al-Khalili, looks at state-of-the-art applications of optics and traces the science of light back to the medieval Islamic world.

Al-Khalili recreates Ibn al-Haytham’s famous ‘camera obscura‘ experiment with stunning results and also uncovers the work of Ibn Sahl, a mathematician and physicist associated with the Abbasid court of Baghdad. According to a recently discovered manuscript, he correctly described “Snell’s law of refraction” centuries before Dutch astronomer Willebrord Snellius was even born.

We also look at the work of Ibn Mu’adh, who brought together knowledge of optics and geometry in order to estimate the height of the atmosphere.


Astronomy: The Science of the Stars

We explore the evolution of astronomy, from Persian astronomer al-Tusi to Copernicus and the space scientists of today.

Imagine trying to make sense of the universe before telescopes were even invented. Jim al-Khalili reveals how scholars from the Islamic world played a crucial role in astronomy and navigation, influencing later astronomers in the renaissance.

In this episode of Science in the Golden Age, we examine ancient maps dating back to the 9th century at Istanbul’s Museum of the History of Science and Technology in Islam.

In the Qatari desert, Ali Sultan al-Hajri, a businessman and Bedouin, shows how the moon and stars have played a crucial role in navigation and timekeeping for centuries.

Going through an extensive collection of astrolabes – versatile scientific instruments that could be considered as the ‘computers of their day,’ we get a rare chance to see the inner workings of this complex device as one of the most elaborate astrolabes at the Museum of Islamic Art in Doha is taken apart.

Moving from ancient astronomy to the most cutting edge developments in space science, we examine the life of al-Tusi, a great astronomer whose work influenced later astronomers including Copernicus, the renaissance scientist who formulated the model of the universe that placed the sun at the centre and the planets rotating around it.

In this episode we also discover how the Persian astronomer al-Biruni devised an ingenious method for calculating the circumference of the earth, which allowed him to come up with an incredibly accurate estimate, within one percent of the accurate value we know today.

The father of algebra

Al-Khwarizmi: The father of algebra

We explore the origins of algebra and mathematics that underpin the science of flight and the transport of the future.

None of the great achievements of modern science would be possible without the mathematisation of science and the development of algebra.

The word algebra stems from the Arabic word al-jabr, which has its roots in the title of a 9th century manuscript written by the mathematician Al-Khwarizmi.

Al-Khwarizmi’s Kitab al-mukhtasar fi hisab al-jabr wal-muqabala (The Compendious Book on Calculation by Completion and Balancing) was a pioneering piece of work – offering practical answers for land distribution, rules on inheritance and distributing salaries.

In this episode of Science in the Golden Age, theoretical physicist, Jim al-Khalili explores Al-Khwarizmi’s 9th century treatise that also underpins the science of flight and the engineering behind the fastest car in the world.

Originally Persian, Al-Khwarizmi spent his academic life in the city of Baghdad from where the Abbasid caliphs ruled and established the Bayt al-Hikma (The House of Wisdom), a renowned centre of learning.

With Professor Ramazan Sesen and Dr Peter Starr, Jim discusses the origins of the House of Wisdom and how the translation of Greek, Persian and other texts was central to the progressive scientific and mathematical revolution that originated in Baghdad.

And, in the Sulemaniye Library in Istanbul, Jim uncovers a rare text by Al-Kindi, a philosopher, polymath, and musician – and perhaps the world’s earliest mathematical code breaker.

Pioneers of Engineering

Pioneers of Engineering: Al-Jazari and the Banu Musa

We trace the path from modern technology back to the scientists who developed robots, water pumps and trick mechanisms.

The Industrial Revolution was a major turning point in world history, shaping modern behaviour and every other aspect of human life.

The introduction of machines in the 17th century, often powered by water or steam, revolutionised food production, medicine, housing, and clothing.

In this episode of Science in a Golden Age, theoretical physicist, Jim al-Khalili examines the intricate automatic devices from the Islamic world, which paved the way for Europe’s industrial revolution some 800 years later.

Jim starts his journey at the cutting edge of modern automation – a robotic kitchen that can be programmed to produce a number of dishes according to fixed recipes. Jim finds interesting parallels to this example of modern engineering in the Kitab al-Hiyal (The Book of Tricks) written by the three Banu Musa brothers in the 9th century.

We get a glimpse of the diagrams and descriptions of complex mechanisms, water dispensing vessels and entertainment devices, as Jim recreates one of the Banu Musa brothers’ most famous inventions – a ‘flute that plays itself’.

We also explore the works of Turkish engineer Al-Jazari by looking at working models of water devices, including a sophisticated water pump for supplying water to homes and farms.

Engineering Professor Atilla Bir shows us Al-Jazari’s elaborate and ornate elephant clock, which used complicated mechanisms to tell the time and create impressive visual displays. The design of this clock was included in Al-Jazari’s beautifully illustrated text – Kitab fi marifat al-hiyal al-handasiyya (The Book of Knowledge of Ingenious Mechanical Devices), a copy of which is held at the Suleymaniye Library in Istanbul.

Finally Jim consults pilot and mathematician Andy Green, to investigate one of the most outlandish claims of the Golden Age – the story that Abbas Ibn Firnas, an inventor from Andalusia in Islamic Spain, built himself wings and took to the skies.


Chemistry: The Search for the Philosopher’s Stone

We explore how the work of medieval chemists has impacted the evolution of modern chemistry.

The chemical industry has reshaped the modern world – giving us new fuels, drugs and materials. But the methodology and principles of chemistry go back over a thousand years.

Between the 9th and 14th centuries, there was a Golden Age of Science when scholars from the Islamic world, like Jabir Ibn Hayyan and Al-Razi, introduced a rigorous experimental approach that laid the foundations for the modern scientific method.

In this episode of Science in a Golden Age, theoretical physicist Jim al-Khalili leads us on an exploration of just how these scientists began the process of transforming the superstition of alchemy into the science of chemistry.

He begins by unpicking the medieval obsession with alchemy – the effort to turn common, less valuable metals into gold. He looks into the work of Jabir Ibn Hayyan, a polymath who grew up in modern-day Iran and who is credited with applying an experimental-based approach to early chemistry.

Through his determined efforts to dissolve and transform metals, Ibn Hayyan learnt much about acids. Together with Professor Hal Sosabowski from the University of Brighton, Jim looks at the reaction of gold with aqua regia – a powerful combination of acids that Ibn Hayyan discovered.

Following on from Ibn Hayyan’s work, chemists like Al-Kindi and Al-Razi furthered the development of scientific practice, basing their work on careful experiments and observations. Their obsession with accuracy was what qualified them as being amongst the first true scientists. Jim shows us the ‘Mizan Al-Hikma’, an intricate set of scales built by a scholar by the name of Al-Khazani in the 12th century. What set this piece of equipment apart was not just the beauty of the craftsmanship, but the exacting precision it delivered.

The chemical processes developed by the Islamic scientists were motivated by numerous factors – one of which was the requirements of Islam itself – for example, the washing of the hands, face and feet before prayer. This requirement for cleanliness quickly led to the development of whole industries – like the production of soap. The first solid bars of soap were manufactured in the Islamic world and Jim looks at how alkalis helped develop the soap industries of the Golden Age.

From Jabir Ibn Hayyan to Al-Kindi to Al-Razi, this episode covers the works of some of most prolific and influential chemists of the Golden Age and tells the story of how the evolution of modern chemistry began.

Canon of Medicine

Al-Razi, Ibn Sina and the Canon of Medicine

We explore the links between medical research in the Golden Age of Science and the modern practise of medicine today.

Standing in one of the largest neonatal units in the world at Hamad Hospital in Qatar, you would not immediately be able to draw a link between the pioneering medical research being conducted and the work of physicists from the ninth century.

In this episode of Science in the Golden Age, theoretical physicist Jim al-Khalili guides us through a journey of discovery where he highlights the links between medical research in the Golden Age of Science during the ninth and 14th centuries and the modern practise of medicine today.

At Hamad Hospital, a new treatment is being trialled for babies born with a neurological disorder called neonatal encephalopathy. Senior consultant Dr Samawal Lutfi explains how the double-blind placebo control method ensures the accuracy of the study. This notion of a control group goes all the way back over 1,000 years to a Persian physician by the name of Al-Razi who built the first hospitals in Baghdad. He was an early proponent of applying a rigorous scientific approach to medicine and used a control group when testing methods to treat meningitis in the ninth century.

At Harefield Hospital in the UK, we meet Professor Magdi Yacoub, a pioneering transplant surgeon and one of the world’s leading heart specialists.

Professor Yacoub explains how the 13th-century scholar, Ibn al-Nafis, redefined the understanding of pulmonary circulation. He challenged the commonly accepted wisdom of the Greek scholar Galen, who had said that blood passes directly between the heart’s right and left ventricle through the septum, the dividing wall that separates them. Ibn al-Nafis put forward the idea that blood could not pass directly between the right and left chambers of the heart – and that the lungs had a role to play in this process. 

Ibn al-Nafis’ description was not widely accepted at the time, and it wasn’t until his manuscript was rediscovered in the 20th century that his work was universally recognised.

From Al-Razi to Ibn al-Nafis, to the 10th-century philosopher and physician Ibn Sina, Khalili examines the most influential medics of the Golden Age. He shows us his personal copy of Ibn Sina’s Al-Qanun fi al-Tibb (The Canon of Medicine), a comprehensive text which was the pinnacle of medical knowledge at that time. It was widely copied and translated, becoming a standard medical reference across the world for centuries.

Khalili ends his journey at the Weill Cornell Medical College in Qatar, learning how the institute is using the latest equipment to map the human genome. The genome is the complex genetic code contained in every one of our cells and sequencing it can reveal possible hereditary diseases.

Focusing on genetic and hereditary diseases specifically affecting the Qatari population, scientists from around the world have come together to work on this ambitious project that somewhat parallels Baghdad’s Bayt al-Hikma (The House of Wisdom), the renowned centre of learning that played an integral role in the Islamic world’s scientific advancement.


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